David Lee Roth’s persona might be that of a particularly lusty vaudevillian, ready to crack a joke, but he held court for more than a few serious moments during Thursday night’s Van Halen show at the improbably small Café Wha?
There was the introduction of his 92-year-old uncle, Manny Roth (the MacDougal Street venue’s original proprietor), during which Roth recalled the first time he descended the stairs to the cave-like space some 50 years ago; then, the part where he outlined the ethnic makeup of Los Angeles’s clubs during a bit about his band’s repertoire of covers made me wonder if there’s some alternate-universe Roth who’s getting great buzz on ratemyprofessor.com. And then there was the point where he looked back on his days as a paramedic: Back in the ’00s, he traded tour buses for New York City’s ambulances, traveling to the Bronx and Bed-Stuy as he treated people in need.
During this particular tangent—which was set off by Roth wondering if anyone in the industry-heavy audience could introduce him to Lady Gaga—the frontman, still flamboyant despite being clad in overalls and a Dutch Boy cap, outlined his inspiration for heading to EMT school instead of traveling the reality-show path trod by too many of his peers. “Artist to artist . . . haven’t you ever wondered about some of these buildings, and some of these projects, and some of these places we drive past every day, and you wonder: ‘What’s behind that door? Man, what’s going on in there? What’s up on the roof over there?’” he asked. “As an artist, everything you see—everybody that you know—winds up in your voice.”
Lofty stuff from a man who once crowed, “I dropped my pen-cil!” as a come-on—in the pummeling-yet-flirty “Hot for Teacher,” one of the chestnuts pulled out during the Café Wha? gig—but not entirely surprising. After all, being an entertainer worthy of one’s box-office receipts involves cultivating a certain amount of empathy for the people paying the cover charges; the audience Thursday night was filled with seen-it-all types who were bowled over not just by the fact that one of the rock era’s biggest bands was shredding through its biggest songs while standing maybe 20 feet tops away from them, but also by the charisma that emanated from the stage.
The night before Van Halen’s gig, one of the few current pop stars whose notoriety matches that of Roth at his MTV-saturating peak, and one who’s ever mindful of his own artistic voice—Kanye West—took to his Twitter account for a series of 140-character salvos over the course of a few hours that, in part, outlined his vision for his post–Watch the Throne future. He confessed that despite the boasts on his collaborative album with Jay-Z, he hadn’t bought any new jewelry or cars because he instead wanted to pursue his artistic dreams, which included the formation of a new company.
DONDA—all-caps, named after West’s mother—will be the company where West and his collaborators “help simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel . . . dream of, create, advertise, and produce products driven equally by emotional want and utilitarian need.” It will eventually employ a laundry list of creative and professional types that include “architects, graphic designers, directors, musicians, producers, AnRs, writers, publicists, social media experts, app guys, managers, car designers, clothing designers, DJs, video game designers, publishers, tech guys, lawyers, bankers, nutritionists, doctors, scientists, teachers”—so serious was he about finding members of these professions that he even tweeted an e-mail address where interested parties could sign up.
Much has been made of the demise of the record industry and the attendant shrinking of the stars who populate it. But there are still outsized personalities in the music world, and there’s definitely a hunger to view certain people as stars in a positive light and not just in the point-and-laugh way popularized by TMZ and twilight-of-fame reality shows. Police and barricades cordoned the streets around Café Wha? on Thursday night to handle the crowds angling for a glimpse of Roth and his bandmates. Hours earlier, West had about 5.8 million people following him on Twitter, and his sketched-out business plan was amplified by both the reams of media coverage it received and the people on Twitter who were real-time reacting to its incremental broadcast.
On the flip side, the shrinking of the sphere allows for less room for excess and lost weekends spent overindulging in the spoils of stardom to the detriment of one’s art—because to be frank, they might not be there for long, if at all. West’s disavowal of spending money on the finer things in life might have sounded a bit disingenuous (this is a guy, after all, who tooled around in a deconstructed $350,000 car for a music video with Jay-Z last year), but when coupled with the outlining of his artistic vision, it was striking.
The ferocity with which Van Halen attacked their instruments on Thursday night made me flash back to the taut, three-hour Guns N’ Roses show I saw last year; Axl Rose might have showed up late, but damned if he wasn’t a pro who seemed to be enjoying himself. Van Halen’s show on Thursday night felt the same way, and chalking all of that up adrenaline rush to the small setting is probably incorrect.
“I want to put creatives in a room together with like minds that are all waaaay doper than me,” West tweeted at one point during his DONDA pitch. Perhaps he and Roth should have a chat?